It’s been a long time since the last mission to the moon, and the big guys at NASA are eager to try their hands again. They see a real opportunity to gain funding again by proving these missions are worthwhile. Given the strange things that happened last time — the things that brought the NASA program to a halt decades ago — the executives realize they need to approach the public with their plans in a different way.
They’re going to send teenagers to the moon. Not only will teenagers not remember what happened before, but the excitement of selecting these teens through a worldwide competition will cause the general public to forget the mistakes of the past. It seems like a win for everyone, as both the public and NASA officials benefit from the arrangement. While they’re on the moon, the teens and small crew will reside in DARLAH 2, the structure from prior missions. It should be in the same working order it was years ago, of course (by now you’re likely asking what happened to the original DARLAH but that is the fun of this, if you think of fun in the same sense I do).
Mia, from Norway, is the member of a band and she has no interest in this contest at all. But when her parents enter her for the chance to go to the moon, she’s persuaded by her band mates this could be a perfect opportunity to give them exposure on a worldwide stage. Midori, from Japan, hates her life at home, despite feeling like she’s finally fitting in with the Harajuku girls in Tokyo (fitting in is a loose description — more like, she admires the culture and so wishes to fit in). She’s eager to turn 18 and move away from Japan and onto bigger and better things in New York City. A trip to the moon to her sounds beyond perfect. The third teenager selected for the trip is Antoine, from France. He’s in it as a way to get back at the girlfriend he lost to another boy. Going to the moon feels like real revenge.
There’s a fourth character who doesn’t last very long in the story, and that’s Himmelfarb. He’s close to death, but he’s getting the news of the moon project in his nursing facility and he is not happy about it. He may or may not know how dangerous this mission is because he may or may not have been on the last dangerous mission. The one which resulted in the DARLAH 2. This is all you need to know about Himmelfarb: on page 26, his story reads “He screamed. And his scream could be heard all the way out on the street. It was the scream of a person who’d just realized all hope was lost.” When your character knows all hope is lost that soon in the story, you know things are not going anywhere good!
After the training to prepare these teens for space, they’re sent up with a few crew members, and it takes virtually no time before things get very, very bad. Just minutes following their initial exploration of the DARLAH 2, power to the facility is gone. Then their oxygen levels are decreasing. Oh, and surprise! No one can fix the facility because (silly NASA officials), the fact the place has sat empty on the moon for decades has made it impossible to open the wiring cages they need to open. Things are bleak.
Then they discover they are not alone on the moon. Something else is out there, too. Something — or someone — doesn’t want their demise to be any easier than necessary.
172 Hours on the Moon is a plot-driven, sci-fi thriller that I loved every second of. This book reads like a cross between a Scandanavian thriller film and straight up J-horror. Harstad successfully builds the tension in this story by not wasting a whole lot of time letting us get to know the characters, and while it means we’re left with really thin characters, it means that we’re also wholly absorbed in the strange events surrounding this trip. As readers, we’re putting ourselves in the situation, since it’s one we’ve probably all thought a little bit about — wouldn’t it be cool to go to the moon and check it out? What if there is life on another planet? But Harstad then tosses in the little problems of not having a safe place to live, not having oxygen to breathe, and having another being chasing us down (and really what can we do when that happens because we don’t have anywhere to hide and we don’t have a way to keep our bodies functioning). Pacing is spot-on, and action propels the story forward.
Furthering the tension is the careful weaving of fear throughout the story in a way that doesn’t necessarily make this a scary book but more of a chilling book. When all three of the teens are preparing for the mission and spending a lot of time together, they’re swapping stories about their lives back home. So while they’re not entirely developed individuals, readers are given hints into their psyche. Midori dazzles Mia and Antoine with Japanese urban legends, in particular the one about the Kuchisake-onna. While they sort of write it off, this is an image that will not go away easily. Mia shares her love of music — in particular 80s jams — and there’s a particular scene in the novel where she remembers this song. For me, these two things set the path of where the story was heading, and I was not once disappointed in the pay off in the end.
Characters are not going to make it out alive in 172 Hours on the Moon, and the way Harstad develops his characters will give readers an indication of who plays an important part in the story and who is simply along for the ride. It’s when things begin getting very desperate — when members of the moon mission team are splitting up in hopes of finding a way back to Earth — that the other being emerges. Mia, who is hard-headed and stubborn, is determined to get off the moon and get back to Earth, even if it means going it alone. She’s not going to wait for adults to take care of her. She’s also not going to back down when she comes face to face with the being who calls moon home. Because explaining what may be lurking on the moon would spoil the entire story, I’ll say this much: Kuchisake-onna will show up again. Anyone familiar with J-Horror will no doubt see the end of this one from miles away, but I loved it anyway. It felt entirely fresh in the young adult world.
Maybe the strongest element of this novel, though, was that it was written in third-person. In theory, we get a sense of all the characters from an objective narrator, who is able to lead us from the moment NASA officials decide to make this trip through to the end of the characters’ journeys. Except, never once did I believe this narrator was objective. S/he leads us through the story, baiting us with how we should feel, which only furthers the suspense and the tension. Do we want to believe the narrator or do we want to form our own beliefs about the situation and the character motivations? How can we?
Because I am familiar with this sort of story from watching a lot of movies in this vain, I found the book to be a lot of fun and, at times, really funny. There were many times I laughed out loud, including during a particularly amusing moment when readers are let in on the fact of why NASA officials chose to leave Buzz Aldrin’s footprint and boot on the moon; that item becomes something the teens want to steal and bring back home as a relic of their trip (I just cracked myself up again thinking about how symbolic this sentence is in and of itself). That said, 172 Hours on the Moon is a classic thriller, in that it delivers moments of terror and chills without necessarily becoming gory. It will scare people who are sensitive to scary films — I’d rank it somewhere between “The Others,” “The Ring,” and “The Changeling” in terms of haunts.
Readers who are demanding will probably be disappointed in a lack of character development and a lot of suspension of belief, which starts from the beginning with the premise that three teens from three vastly different countries had no problem talking with one another in the same language. Even though I consider myself demanding, I let this go right away because there is so much more going on worth worrying about instead. Those who love science fiction and thrillers, though, will eat this up. It’s worth noting that even though this is a translated novel, it does not falter under awkward phrasings or jumps in pacing due to translation issues.
One additional neat element to the book is the use of photographs throughout the story. They’re woven into the text in a way that makes this an even more visual read, maybe even making it a little more eerie.
Review copy received from the publisher. 172 Hours on the Moon will be available April 17.